Guest

Build an Organizational Culture that Deconstructs Silos

By: Guest | July 17, 2012 | 
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Today’s guest post is written by John Trader

Working directly with international markets during the past few years has broadened my perspective on a number of things.

It’s given me the opportunity to learn and understand the structure and nuances of many different business cultures outside of my own.

And I’ve noticed something about the way some companies are built in the U.S.

I realized individualism, one of the fundamental principles our culture is built on could possibly be the largest impediment to deconstructing the silos that reemerged following our most recent economic downturn.

In other words, the focus on independence in the U.S. vs. interdependence in other foreign cultures can often be a serious roadblock to opening doors that foster communication integration – a factor many believe to be the key to success in the modern economy.

In the early 1980’s, Geert Hofsetdee, a Dutch researcher in the fields of organizational studies, organizational culture, cultural economics, and management developed a research model by aggregating individuals as societal units to determine values on which cultures vary.

Although somewhat controversial, his conclusions were that some cultures (like the U.S.) see the individual as the most important being and reward individual achievement while valuing the uniqueness of the individual as a key pillar of collective values.

Conversely, and from what I have observed directly from working with other cultures, is the collectivist mentality which places the views, needs, and goals of a group as a priority over where people define themselves in relation to others.

Most of these cultures focus on cooperation, not competition, as a strategic business objective. This is very evident in the way they act, speak, and cultivate their business alliances. Very rarely do I run into an organization that is hampered by silos or clogged by the inability to openly communicate.

An article written in Vanity Fair, called Microsoft’s Lost Decade,” describes a corporate culture based on a concept called “stack ranking.” It’s a concept that “forces every business unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor…” You know: The 10/80/10 rule.

Stack ranking effectively stifled innovation and is arguably one of the main reasons the company slipped and faltered while Apple and Google flourished because they were built on a culture of open communication and unbridled creativity.

That’s a pretty compelling case study  on how encouraging a competitive, individualistic business environment virtually crumbled a once feared titan of the industry, don’t you think?

Assuming my theory is correct and moving more towards collectivism would help to break down silos, how do we shift our business culture to be less individualistic? The answer may be far more difficult than it appears. It just may lie in how we are raised:

In a psychological experiment conducted by renowned social psychology expert Richard Nisbett, comments from both American and East Asian students were recorded after they were shown an underwater scene. The American students focused their comments on the individual fish in the scene and the East Asian students discussed more holistic elements of the scene including details of the landscape as well as the fish.

“East Asians focus on relationships while Westerners tend to see isolated objects rather than the connections between them.”

Based on this and other similar studies about the differences between American and foreign cultures, it’s feasible to surmise that effective ways to curb individualism in American business culture need to start when we are young.

What are your thoughts on individualism in American business culture? Can you share some of your observations of the factors that may lead to business silos?

John Trader is a public relations and marketing manager with M2SYS Technology , a recognized industry leader in biometric identity management technology. He has PR and marketing experience working in the financial, publishing, non-profit, entertainment, sales training, and technology sectors. Currently living in Atlanta, he is an avid NHL fan and high school lacrosse coach. He also blogs over at PRBreakfastClub.com. You can follow him on Twitter at John_Trader1.

  • Great post, John– I’m big on organizational cultures and how they affect the construct of companies (or teams for that matter). You raise a good point with the psychology behind why American employees do what they do. The idea of American Individualism definitely explains some of the underpinning reasons why companies might be more motivated to encourage the individual over the collective.  I can relate to this as my former corporate experience rewarded the senior staff member who brought in the most new business with a sizable bonus…that never quite trickled down…
     
    Either way, this gives us lots to think about when approaching organizational culture and what it might really take to break free of the silo structure.

    • John_Trader1

       @Krista After doing some research on individualism and how it impacts our culture, it’s a wonder why more businesses don’t suffer from the silos that it helps to create. It amazed me that a company like Microsoft could let a culture like that bring them down when it seemed that the business climate clearly called for more cooperation and collective behavior. I was pretty shocked at the “stack ranking” concept. Apple and Google sure didn’t have any problems with it though as they gladly kicked Microsoft in the shins and ran ahead laughing.
       
      Thanks for sharing that example of the senior staff reward system. I can’t see how a policy like this supports working as a team if its exclusive to one group of employees. 

  • Audioname

    John, Thanks for highlighting the subtle cultural differences and how it impacts an organization in the long run. My experience is that when people from different cultures work together they are so focused on ‘getting things done’ that they miss out of relationship building…until it is too late. This might get the short term results but misses the longer term goal of building one unified team.

    • John_Trader1

       @Audioname Thanks for the comment. I had not realized how individualism can often lead to closed communication in U.S. business since I was exposed to the team building and collectivism of foreign cultures and their ability to abandon silos in favor of a true team approach. It’s something we can learn from and hopefully ingrain in youth so the generations of tomorrow don’t make the same mistakes we do. 

  • I thought the Microsoft example was especially interesting! I do see what you mean about the different philosophies, culturally. I lived in France for a year when I was much younger and it really opened my eyes to other societies. They live and think very differently as does every culture, of course.

    The fact that we, as Americans, rarely speak other languages, and small things like the fact that we don’t accept Canadian currency at the register when Canadians accept ours, make me realize that our culture is very egocentric.

    •  @Lisa Gerber Going to Europe always opens my eyes to how egocentric and stupid we are. No wonder so many foreign cultures hate us.

      • John_Trader1

         @ginidietrich  @Lisa Gerber I have seen that too Gini – and heard firsthand from colleagues in other countries of our ignorance and people’s perception of the U.S. as just plain egocentric. I suppose it isn’t our fault necessarily that English is the business language of the world but why not make learning another language in U.S. schools a priority? It really demonstrates our commitment to a global society and our understanding and appreciation of cultures outside of our own.

    • John_Trader1

       @Lisa Gerber Egocentric is a good way to describe it Lisa. I work with quite a few people who are immigrants from other countries and in light conversation they ask us (Westerners) why we are so focused on climbing over top of one another to get ahead and why so reluctant to get “intimate” in business relationships? One guy described how people in his country treat colleagues like family, and I’m not talking about passing someone in the hallway and saying “What’s up brother?” I’m talking about inviting colleagues into your home to share meals (on a consistent basis), treating colleagues’ kids as they were your own, etc.
       
      It is just so foreign to us but my friends here at work point out that it builds a team where there are no walls, no barriers, no impediments to communication. A world without silos. 

    •  @Lisa Gerber I love how Americans still feel their dollar is worth more than ours (I’m a Canuck).  And I talk with Finance professors! 

      •  @RebeccaTodd What???!!! Just kidding. 🙂 I know, right? 
        This was actually forefront on my mind the day I wrote that comment because I was in line in the grocery store and the guy in front of me, visiting from Canada, couldn’t pay for his groceries. The system wouldn’t accept his debit card, and they wouldn’t take his cash!!! I thought, that’s a nice welcome for a nice Canadian man that is trying to give us his money.” 
         
        Any Canadian cashier will gladly take my American cash! 

      • rdopping

        @RebeccaTodd @Lisa Gerber With all the instant access to info you’de think it would be easy to see which currency rules on what day.

        •  @rdopping    @Lisa Of course I looked and today we are pretty much at par.  It was great talking with a US finance profs about the US banks- When I pointed out that he now banks with TD, he turned on his heel and walked away. 

      • John_Trader1

         @RebeccaTodd  @Lisa Gerber I knew there was something I liked about you. If you are a Canuck that means you are a Vancouver Canuck hockey fan which means that you like the NHL which means that you and I are BFF’s for life. Hockey rules!!!

        •  @John_Trader1  @Lisa Gerber Ahh well…I bleed blue.  Dad has season’s to the Leafs. So while hockey is a big yes, and I will take VanCity over, say, Ottawa (BOO!) or Montreal (blech!) It’s my boys in blue that I love… Off topic- did you catch any of that “While the men watch” bs?!?

        • John_Trader1

           @RebeccaTodd  Well, if you are for the Leafs than times are tough. Hopefully this season they will turn it around. I didn’t catch any of the “While the men watch” – what is that about? 

        •  @John_Trader1 Yeah…the life of a Leaf’s fan. But I’m only 35 so losing is all I know…
           
          WTMW was disgusting.  CBC show.  Supposed to be a woman’s take on hockey.  Yet all they did was discuss which players they would shag, and talk about how they don’t even know the rules, and what is offside, anyway? It was shocking and terrible and insulting. 

  • When I was studying organizational psychology in college (I am from India), we studied about the concept of we before I in the east, and I before we in the West. Though I agree with what you suggest here, do you think  a focus on we before I might have anything to do with the degradation of the employee in terms of career growth. One thing is sure that when people work as a team, though it is productive, the individualism of some of the team members might get a little neglected. Some might be able to prove themselves better when working alone, while others feel they are more productive when working in a team. But I keep thinking about this. I met a few patients (when I was counseling) who told me about “lost” they feel because they had to think more about the we rather than the I. Do you think it might block an individuals career path?

    • John_Trader1

       @Hajra  I think you bring up a good point. If you shift towards a business culture that is based on collectivism and suppresses an individualistic mentality, it could possibly sacrifice some of the obvious benefits that individualism brings – self reliance and independence – traits that have spawned some of the most successful businesses and careers in our history. Plus, as you mention, some people may not flourish in a collective group, so how do you incorporate them into the mix without unintentionally blocking their ability to contribute? These are great points you bring up and I wish I had an answer for them, but I guess that the solution lies somewhere in the middle – a hybrid culture that somehow successfully blends the two mentalities. 
       
      Sometimes I wish I could quit my full time job and research topics like this – it truly is fascinating!

      •  @John_Trader1 It truly is fascinating to look more into this. I think maybe even when we work in teams where the we is more important than the I; there might be many factors that might help keep a good balance between the two – maybe a particular group size that makes both the we and I equally important. Or focusing on how each one contributes to the team goals. There are many ways one could see how a good balance of both might be achieved. But yes, I still don’t have answers! 🙂

        • John_Trader1

           @Hajra  I sense a fresh blog post from you on this…..or at least a research paper! You seem to know quite a bit about theories on how to build an organization the right way!

        •  @John_Trader1 LOL! I don’t know so much, I am just a shrink.. 🙂 

        •  @Hajra   @John_Trader1 “Just”?!? Hardly!

  • rdopping

    Interesting point of view John and not to difficult to experience in NA. I am from Canada but I don’t think it matters because our business attitudes are like closely tethered to that of the US. Is it bacause we are taught  to seek success as individuals right form the get go (ala the American Dream)? Maybe.
     
    Building a team based environment where it is the collective that serves a purpose borders on a political stance that most North Americans may still have difficulty swallowing. But it works when you can get the buy in. I have a team that I like to think is leading the way for our firm with this attitude and we are successful doing it but it takes constant work to keep it running smoothly. 

    • John_Trader1

       @rdopping Thanks for the comment Ralph. You struck on something prominent by pointing out that promoting a collective mentality isn’t quite as politically acceptable for the majority of us. Ah yes, politics. Stifling our progress forward one step at a time. *sigh*
       
      Also a good point that this is something that takes hard work day in and day out. Almost to the point that daily reminders are needed since it may be a collective atmosphere at work but as soon as you step outside the office door, it’s back to a world where individualism rules the nest. It’s awfully hard to keep that mentality at work when we live in a world where individualism reigns. 

  • This goes hand-in-hand with what I’ve been exploring lately as it relates to time management, getting it all done, and having it all. The idea that North Americans are out for themselves, while other cultures are more team-based is ridiculous. But when you tie it with the fact that other cultures are more happy than we are, it kind of doesn’t make sense that we keep doing things the way we’re doing them.

    • John_Trader1

       @ginidietrich Most people in our society would read this and think – what a ridiculous view point, it doesn’t apply to me or the way I roll. I am a team player. The problem is when you factor in how we are as a society in the aggregate and compare that to other cultures, you’re right – many are more content and happier than us. 

  • alanbr82

    @ginidietrich I always think of my days at Armstrong when you mention Organizational Silos.

    • ginidietrich

      @alanbr82 Why??

      • alanbr82

        @ginidietrich mainly between HQ, Floor & Ceiling. Then within those BU’s more, residential, business & Architecture. Just no communication.

      • alanbr82

        @ginidietrich They would go after the same jobs but not as united front. Very little focus on the corporate goal more on “mine”.

        • ginidietrich

          @alanbr82 OMG. That is terrible. I would have gone nuts there.

        • alanbr82

          @ginidietrich It was really bad HQ was promoted BU people that carried loyalty & animosity. Lotus Notes made things even worse. 🙁

    • ginidietrich

      @alanbr82 And while you’re answering me about Armstrong, please tell me why cyclists do drugs? They’re going to get caught. So sad.

      • alanbr82

        @ginidietrich Cyclist & drugs I don’t get. I’ve known guys at my level that did things, it’s always about the getting an edge not the fun.

        • ginidietrich

          @alanbr82 When I started working with my coach, he made me sign something saying I wouldn’t dope. I guess it’s that big of a problem

        • alanbr82

          @ginidietrich When I went through the coaching clinic same thing. As an official we where told to look for “signs”.

        • ginidietrich

          @alanbr82 What kinds of signs?

        • alanbr82

          @ginidietrich Mainly DNF one day then win the next, defensive, just looking pumped. We could do testing just mention it, very strange.

        • ginidietrich

          @alanbr82 Very interesting

  • jeffespo

    @jamienotter we all love silos 😉

    • jamienotter

      @jeffespo But we also need them sometimes. http://t.co/AX4g3Hm4

      • jeffespo

        @jamienotter very true words sir and I like/remember that one 🙂

  • jamienotter

    I think American individualism has contributed to the widespread adoption of cultures that over-value central control. This ties to silos (smaller containers of centralized control), and it probably stems from the early stage of a company when it was run by the founders. There is no question that the founder has total authority, and that evolves into systems where we put too much power in the center and let potential languish in the periphery.
     
    I think it also contributes to a flawed understanding of leadership as an individual capacity, rather than as the capacity of the system to shape its future. 

    • John_Trader1

       @jamienotter Well said Jamie, thanks for the comment. Tempering individualism to stop silo building starts at the top.

  • John_Trader1

    @nghannoum @marketing_memes Thanks for sharing the @spinsucks blog post!

  • John_Trader1

    @jocmbarnett Thanks for sharing the post John.

  • Say thanks for this John!  I love Geert’s work ( I even have his app!). I was very disillusioned the other day by a post on the HBR blog stating that fueling internal competition amongst your staff would provide positive growth in customer service in restaurants.  This kind of thinking completely baffles me! In the restaurant context, the happiest customers I ever had was when I stopped caring about my individual return and shares my whole section with another server.  Then we were truly there for the customers- running any food that hit the window immediately and responding to any customer needs regardless of where they sat.  Not only did customers notice, they thanked us for truly committing to providing the best service and not “hogging tables” to ourselves.  Funny thing- our average tip went up by almost 10%. Best money I’ve ever made and all thanks to embracing a collectivist mindset. 

    • John_Trader1

       @RebeccaTodd Great example Rebecca. Funny that you mention this because I have noticed that more restaurants are moving to sharing tips by section rather than individual tips that are all for yourself and it does help increase the level of service when everyone has skin in the game. Maybe corporate America could learn a thing or two from their neighborhood Applebee’s.

  • John_Trader1

    @cookerlypr Thanks for sharing the post – hope y’all are doing well.

  • jelenawoehr

    Great post, and I love the overall concept of learning from other cultures! I think diversity in all forms results in stronger teams and better decision-making. Individualists bring something to the table, but a room full of them means shortsightedness, tunnel vision, and competition. I don’t like single-gender, single-race, or single-culture teams as much as I like diverse ones. If you have the opportunity to learn from multiple people, why pick a whole host of them who are likely to say the same things in different ways?
     
    I have to quibble with the Microsoft example, though. I don’t think stack ranking created a competitive and individualist business environment. A really competitive environment would rank people based on their actual performance. Competitiveness is most effective in business when you can channel it into competing with your own best performance, first and foremost. A 10-80-10 system doesn’t allow the 80% in the middle to beat their personal bests, so it actually stifles their competitive instincts by convincing them that even continuous improvement won’t result in a win as long as the manager’s favorites are still on the team. If Microsoft wants to stick with individualism but ditch the forced ratios, my favorite option would be to abandon annual performance reviews altogether (statistically, they do nothing for performance in most companies) and institute continuous feedback with on the spot rewards.

    • John_Trader1

       @jelenawoehr You make an interesting point Jelena and I respect your train of thought. Thanks for weighing in on the post.

    • rdopping

       @jelenawoehr Interesting viewpoint. You know, after reading the book Drive it becomes clear that “rewards” are less effective that tapping into what motivates people to achieve their goals. I agree that the annual performance review does little to motivate performance and that continuous feedback, where warranted, is more effective. Do you think coupling that with a mentor program, for example, to allow opportunity to garner feedback would be a viable process to assist individuals with growth and achieving personal best without the “carrot & stick” motivational attitude? 

  • John_Trader1

    @cruze24 Thanks for sharing the @SpinSucks post!

    • cruze24

      @John_Trader1 – thanks for following!

  • John_Trader1

    @rachaelseda Thanks Rachael!

    • rachaelseda

      @John_Trader1 sure thing!

  • MartijnLinssen

    @markwschaefer too bad he couldn’t spell Hofstede

  • MartijnLinssen

    .@markwschaefer @ginidietrich stop breaking down silos, enginise the pistons http://t.co/bFFy2lvb

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  • Millabrain

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